Words by Raj Kapoor
Photography by Northern Motorsports
With 14 editions of the Maruti Suzuki Desert Storm behind us, one does tend to develop a fair bit of understanding of what bodes well, or otherwise, for a cross-country motorsport event. Now is a good time as any to take stock of what is going right and what needs correction for the future editions of the Storm.
Flashback to those years around the early part of the 2000’s. Cell phone coverage was still rather sketchy if you were out of metro towns. GPS systems were not so handy and apps with GPS support on phones were virtually non existent. With all the above constraints, running special stages over 15km in length were difficult what with the tracks perpetually changing with every strong gust of wind. Attempting to remember the route with just a few landmarks and compass directions was an uphill task, and trying to store all that rote learning in your head for distances over 15km in the desert was a challenge.
The ability to venture off the defined track on the sand laid out by an obliging camel cart was not something many cars or their drivers possessed at that time. What with Maruti Esteems being a major part of the start grid, this was akin to committing harakiri. It was a common sight to see the special stage littered with remains of overheated front-wheel drive cars, unable to make it through the hot sands of the Thar desert. We then went on to disapprove all front-wheel drive cars from participating in the Xtreme category and designed the rally route off the defined tracks and more towards the cross-country space, focussed towards dedicated 4WD vehicles.
Shift to the current era, the 14th edition of the storm had 13 special stages and all of them were new stages, 800 plus kilometres of competitive stage distance which actually translates to more than twice the entire competitive distance the national championship runs annually!
Of the 13 stages, one marathon stage just short of 200km that had everyone worried sick. The Storm has always gone on to set benchmarks that a few other rallies in the country could match, marathon special stages, night stages, fast straight runs through the salt flats, beach stages and a whole lot more.
To put things into perspective, the entire Storm circus has a total of about 500 plus people that move through each night halt along with the rally. Total number of rooms consumed on each night are upwards of 350 and that almost consumes the entire hotel room inventory in smaller towns. These comprise rally marshals, senior officials from the organisation and the ASN, media and video crew cars, service crew vehicles and the medical support vehicles. The economic impact of the Storm hitting a small town in Rajasthan is tremendous, from the business going to the hospitality sector, right up to the business opportunities thrown up, to the corner snack shop owner, the local store that sells bottled water, the fuel stations in the area, the auto part stores, the taxi drivers in the area, in fact extending to the local village farmer with a tractor, he too gets business for the days the rally is in town.
The core team that ensures the Storm runs the way it does are the people who work for months before the event. While Jayesh and I would be looking at the principal issues on where the broad alignment for the current edition of the Storm would head, the tentative dates and the number of stages, the team on ground comprising of our local area commanders and our core route mapping team would start to make exploratory trips to make the first cut of the road book. The stages would keep getting modified and tweaked as we got a better understanding of the area and its limitations. The road book gets made and the first print copies then start to get checked multiple times for errors and changes. The road book gets checked on ground at least three times before we actually hand it out at the event.
The safety and medical plan is another very important component of our list of things to do. The selective stages once detailed then require an audit on possible dangerous areas, as well as possible evacuation routes. Possible points that the ambulance can drive upto along the entire length and breadth of the stage and then linking all those coordinates with GPS traces to all escape routes. Each stage has a dedicated critical care ambulance, an evacuation ambulance and multiple medical intervention vehicles. For the record, the 2016 edition of the storm had a total of 12 such medical vehicles supporting the rally. Also this year the Desert Storm was the only rally in the country that undertook a surprise breath analyser check randomly during the rally to ensure that we had compliance.
Any cross-country endurance rally needs a very capable purpose-built vehicle to compete successfully. The vehicle build has to have a lot of emphasis on reliability and innovation to counter all that a marathon rally throws at it, consistently over five to six days. A stock vehicle has limitations as it was never built to withstand mechanical abuse of this severity and to get around this handicap the rally vehicle needs a host of upgrades which are expensive to say the least. Going by what one sees with the majority of the start grid at a CCR event in India, the vehicles are old and weary. Most have been brought back from the dead after being purchased at various government auctions. All this has to change and someone needs to make the first move and grab the advantage.
The need of the hour is for competitors to think out of the box and search for innovative solutions. Yes the bottomline needs to be looked after as most of the competitors are self-funded but having said that it is also imperative that the competition vehicles are engineered to meet the challenges that a gruelling crosscountry event throws at them. We need more free thinkers in the sport who can find innovative solutions to inherent problems some of the stock vehicles possess. Competitors have to look around globally for solutions that could be incorporated in part or in totality to enhance and upgrade the Indian rally car. The Storm needs to keep upping the difficulty quotient each year and the competitor and car should rise up to the challenge, the inverse would not go well for either of the stake holders. Along with Jayesh Desai, Raj Kapoor is one of the founders of Nothern Motorsport and is the brains behind the Desert Storm and other prominent north Indian rallies.